D.C. Council wrongly exempts itself from open-meetings reform law

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Friday, December 3, 2010; 8:55 PM

THE D.C. COUNCIL is finally getting around to improving the city's weak open-meetings law. A council committee approved legislation Thursday that would ensure that the public could attend meetings of government boards and commissions. One problem, though: The proposal would effectively exempt the council itself. This pretty much defeats the whole idea, and we would urge the full council to drop this dubious exception.

The Open Meetings Amendment Act of 2010 (B18-716), approved by the council's committee on government oversight, would broaden the District's notoriously outdated open-meetings law. Among its provisions are requirements that would outlaw public bodies from meeting behind closed doors under the guise of not taking "official" action. Also commendable are new requirements for public notice.

Those strengths are negated, however, by the perplexing decision to give an out to the council. Instead of having to play by the rules that are being mandated for other public bodies, the council would be able to adopt its own rules. And whereas an independent office would be set up to ensure compliance with the law, the council apparently would be answerable to no one.

Other problems with the proposal are that it gives a pass to the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and offers individuals no course of action if they believe the law has been violated. Some advocates for open government who cheered the legislation when it was introduced by council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) - without these objectionable provisions - oppose it in its new ungainly form. Included here is the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, of which The Washington Post is a member.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), the committee chair who drafted the exemptions, did not respond to our inquiries about her rationale. Ms. Cheh has been a champion of open government, so it's curious - and disappointing - that she doesn't recognize how this measure would undermine those efforts. One has to look only as far as Montgomery or Fairfax counties to see lawmakers able to do the public's business in public, with reasonable exceptions for personnel matters or competitive economic development ventures. As the D.C. Open Government Coalition reported, some 30 states also have open-meeting laws that require compliance by state legislatures.

This council, under the leadership of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, has acted with far more transparency than previous bodies. Once-private breakfast meetings were opened to the media; once-secret budget workshops were televised. There is no guarantee, though, that future councils won't regress. That's why open government needs to be enshrined in law - without exception.


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